Sunday, November 15, 2015

RACISM ON THE CAMPUS: THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES



Harry Targ

If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Frederick Douglass

The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line. W.E.B. DuBois

What a proud contrast to the environments that appear to prevail at places like Missouri and Yale. Mitch Daniels

All across the country students, black and white, hit the streets and the campus malls to protest racism; structural and interpersonal. One thousand students rallied at Purdue University on Friday, November 13, to show solidarity with students at the University of Missouri and to announce 13 demands they were making to address racism at Purdue; a racism that the university president says no longer exists.

Of course nationally and locally the struggle for social and economic justice is historic. Rev. William Barber, leader of the Moral Mondays Movement, points to the “Three Reconstructions” in post-Civil War American history. The First Reconstruction occurred in the 1860s and 1870s when black and white farmers and workers came together to write constitutions and to create a new democratic Southern politics. The hope this first reconstruction raised for a truly democratic America was dashed by a shift to the right of the federal government, the reemergence of the old Southern ruling class, and the rise of a brutal violent terrorist organization, the Ku Klux Klan. Racist policies, coupled with terrorism, instilled formal racial segregation in the South and subtle forms of institutionalized racism throughout the rest of the country.

The Second Reconstruction, Barber asserts, was inspired by the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision which declared that segregated schools were unconstitutional. With militant sectors of labor, a grassroots Southern civil rights movement revived all across the country. In the 1960s, it culminated in civil rights legislation that outlawed racial segregation and guaranteed voting rights. Also the “war on poverty” was launched. Shortly after these victories, the Republican Party presidential candidate Richard Nixon employed the so-called “Southern Strategy” to shift federal and state politics to the right. The forerunners of today’s Tea Party rightwing reaction expanded their political power at the federal and state levels.

Rev. Barber believes that, with the movement that elected President Obama, there has emerged a Third Reconstruction. It features the mobilization of  masses of people--blacks and whites, men and women, gays and straights, blue collar and white collar workers, young and old, people of faith and those who choose no faith--coming together to reconstitute the struggle for the achievement of a truly democratic vision. This vision is of a society that is participatory, egalitarian, and economically and psychologically fulfilling.

The resurgence of protests on college campuses, although narrowly focused, represents the contemporary form of the kinds of struggles for social justice Frederick Douglass talked about.  For example, on the campus of Purdue University, the struggle for racial justice has a long history. For the first 60 years of the twentieth century the African American population was less than one percent of the student body.  The numbers of African American students grew to a few hundred in the 1960s. And in the context of the Second Reconstruction and activism around civil rights and opposition to the war in Vietnam, some students organized a “Negro History Study Group”(which later became the Black Student Union). In 1968, to dramatize what they saw as institutional racism coupled with an environment of racial hostility, more than 150 Black students carrying brown bags marched to the Executive Building. At the building they took bricks from the bags. The bricks were piled up and a sign “Or the Fire Next Time,” was set next to the bricks. The students submitted a series of demands including the development of an African American Studies Program and a Black Cultural Center. 

The demonstration was dramatic. The demands clear. The justice of their motivation was unassailable. Administrators and faculty set up committees to discuss the protests. And in the short run, only minor changes were implemented, such as Purdue’s 1968 hiring of the first African American professor in Liberal Arts.

One year later, after an African American member of the track team was castigated for wearing a mustache and his verbal response led to his arrest, Black students launched another protest march with more demands. This time the Administration and the Board of Trustees authorized the establishment of the Black Cultural Center, which today is an educational, social, and architectural hub of the campus. In 1973, Antonio Zamora, educator, accomplished musician, and experienced administrator was hired to lead the campus effort to make the BCC the vital embodiment of the university that it has become.

One of the leaders of the 1969 protest, Eric McCaskill, told then President Hovde by phone during the protest march and visit to the Executive Building: “We are somebody. I am somebody.” Forty-six years later one thousand similarly motivated students rallied together on Friday, November 13 on the Purdue campus. They expressed outrage at the systematic violence against people of color throughout the society and the perpetuation of racism in virtually every institution. On the Purdue campus they protested the lack of full, fair representation of African Americans on the faculty and in the student body, a climate on and off campus that perpetuates racism, and the continuation of all the old stereotypes of minority students that has prevailed for years. They also shared their solidarity with the students of the University of Missouri and they made it crystal clear their disagreement with the statement by the Purdue University President that the Purdue campus was different.

The organizers provided thirteen demands including:

-an acknowledgement by the President of Purdue University that a hostile and discriminatory environment still exists at Purdue
-the reinstatement of a Chief Diversity Officer with student involvement in the hiring process
-the creation of a “required comprehensive awareness curriculum”
-the establishment of a campus police advisory board
-a 30 percent increase of underrepresented minorities in the student body and on the faculty by 2019-2020
-greater representatives of minority groups on student government bodies

Frederick Douglass was correct.  Progress requires struggle. DuBois is still correct about the twenty-first century as he was about the prior one: the problem of our day remains “the color line.” And many of those who observed, participated in, and applauded the organizers of this latest protest at Purdue believe that the struggles are long, the victories sometimes transitory, and each generation of activists is participating in a process of fundamental change that will move society in a more humane direction. The generations of Purdue students of the 1960s and the second decade of the twenty-first century are linked in a chain for justice.